Bias Eraser #7 Illusory Correlation

Have you seen “The Internship?” One of my favorite scenes involves Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson participating in a video interview to secure their internship at Google. After some awkward small talk, the interviewers ask the following question: “You are shrunken down to the size of nickels and dropped to the bottom of a blender. What do you do?” Vaughn and Wilson do not hesitate and provide a particularly ridiculous and hilarious response. And guess what? They get the internship!

What is Illusory Correlation?

In this fictional example, the interviewers determined that the candidates would be successful interns, based on their response to the interview question. As a movie scenario, this is funny, but sadly, this is art reflecting life. The internet is littered with examples of real-life interview questions that mirror the fictional Google scenario above.

Unfortunately, as Lazlo Block (former CHRO of Google) emphatically states in this Inc article, these questions (and their subsequent answers) “don’t predict anything.”
So why would so many sales managers and recruiters rely on useless and sometimes crazy interview questions to find great sales talent? The answer is a cognitive bias known as the illusory correlation.

The Psychology of Illusory Correlation

The illusory correlation occurs when people perceive a relationship between two variables when, in fact, no relationship exists. In the case of crazy interview questions, there is no real correlation between the responses and future job performance. This doesn’t stop people from drawing false conclusions about a candidate’s personality or problem-solving skills. Unfortunately, the only real correlation is how the answer makes the interviewer feel, which has no value in determining how well the candidate will perform.

The True Cost of Illusory Correlation

In practice, the illusory correlation is more serious than it appears. Not only can it lead to terrible sales hires, but it can also have a negative impact on the diversity, equity, and inclusion progress your company is trying to achieve. That’s because illusory correlations lead people to make all sorts of connections between unrelated variables, including:

  • Racial Bias. Someone has a bad interaction with a person of different ethnicity and assumes all people in that race behave the same way.
  • Gender Bias. Someone has a toxic relationship with a female boss and associates the experience with all women leaders.
  • Political Bias. An interviewer assumes that a candidate coming from a politically active company shares the same values.
  • Religious Bias. A candidate wears a religious cross during their interview. The interviewer assumes they will be too conservative for the company.
  • Age Bias. Someone’s parents are challenged with technology. They assume all older people will face the same challenge.
As you see, the illusory correlation is a way that stereotypes are formed. Ultimately, these biases can lead to devastating consequences in the sales hiring process. Diversity and inclusion professionals have turned to implicit bias training to help people recognize and correct their biases, but research also shows that changing behavior is hard. As a result, such well-intended programs often come up short in creating sustainable behavioral change. While companies shouldn’t abandon these programs, they should look for additional ways to erase the bias in sales talent decision-making.

Overcoming Illusory Correlation in the Sales Hiring Process

Increasing standardization and objectivity in the hiring process, which combat the effects of illusory correlation, is the best way to increase the diversity and quality of sales hires. Objective data with a proven link to sales performance can serve as a check and balance human judgment.

Not only does the data improve the quality and diversity of a company’s sales hires, but the users of this data (e.g., talent decision-makers) may also become more self-aware of how their own biases lead them astray. Some ways to increase objectivity and standardization include:

  • Using an objective assessment process that has been validated to predict success in sales jobs. At PerceptionPredict, we used proven science to build a robust predictor of future job performance. In other words, there is a real correlation to job performance, rather than an illusory one. Recruiters and hiring managers reviewing the assessment results on candidates will have solid, factual data on the probability of success, which can then be contrasted with their own judgment.
  • A structured interview approach can be crafted to ensure the questions asked are job-relevant. Responses can be fairly evaluated using a scoring scheme. If someone scores well on a structured interview, they have a higher probability of being successful on the job. This information can serve as a counterpoint to any illusory correlations based on irrelevant factors.

Erasing Bias from Your Sales Hiring Process

Erasing bias from sales hiring is a worthy challenge. Getting it right can help your organization perform at a higher level because your talent will be better qualified and more diverse. In addition to implementing a more standardized and objective process, I encourage you to learn more. Facebook and Google have excellent online training videos and Ideal has solid resources covering diversity recruitment and diversity and inclusion for HR professionals.

Ready to learn more about how our software solutions can give your sales company an edge, simply by removing biases in the hiring process? Book your demo today.

Ready to make hard hiring decisions easier?

Book a time to connect
Book a demo
Or Call: 480-613-3470